My original PhD plan was to do a pilot study, followed by a main study based on the results of the pilot study. However, the complexity of the project is growing, and I've realised that I probably can't complete the PhD within my allotted 3 years if I do both.

The pilot study by itself would be worth at least two, maybe three papers. I believe it would provide enough novel data to earn a PhD. But I'm curious - have you heard of people completing their PhD based only on a pilot study in Psychology?

Also, is this a bad strategy for getting an academic job post-PhD? I already have a few publications under my belt (including a journal article from the literature review for this PhD), but not much of a funding record at this stage. Will the lack of a main study affect the perception of my PhD's quality?

Thanks a lot!

  • 8
    Talk to your advisor. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:25

2 Answers 2


What is acceptable in a doctoral dissertation is up to the university and your advisor. If they agree then it is fine, otherwise not. So, you need to ask them for a definitive answer.

I can, however, see situations where it might be possible and others where it wouldn't be. If the question itself is very "novel" and the difficulty of gathering data very large, then a pilot might give useful information on its own. But if it lacked either of those characteristics, I'd worry about it.

Your advisor should also be an important influence in "scoping" your research if there are time constraints. In general, it is impossible to impose deadlines on research since it is a look into the face of the unknown. You can schedule things that are themselves more or less deterministic, but that doesn't include academic research. Talk to your advisor to se what is possible and reasonable.


There is no strict definition of a "pilot" study. I assume part of your reservation is the sample size would be fairly small.

Either way, yes, absolutely pilot studies are acceptable for PhD dissertations in psychology, especially if you are describing the creation of a new instrument or something similar. Psychology studies are expensive and difficult and take a long time.

That said, your advisor, department, and university have final say, but it is not unreasonable to propose a "pilot study" for your dissertation

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